A Digest of the Week’s Exclusives

9 March:  Nominating his most outspoken critic, Mahmoud Abbas, 68, the veteran PLO secretary general usually known as Abu Mazen, as first Palestinian prime minister certainly stuck in Yasser Arafat’s throat. Yet he went through with his presentation to the PLO Central Committee and the Central Council in Ramallah, on Saturday, March 8 and Sunday March 9.

To make sure the Palestinian leader did not back out at the last minute, Israel conveyed a hint that he may be closer to deportation than he thinks.

Monday, March 10, the Palestinian Legislative Council is due to determine what authority the new position will carry.

The showdown between Arafat and Abu Mazen over the division of authority between them is the focus of heated deliberations in these labyrinthine institutions. But a senior Palestinian source reported to debkafile that at this stage, Abu Mazen has been neatly outmaneuvered. The nominee insists that without real powers, he will not take the job. He is demanding authority to lead any negotiations with Israel and choose his ministers. He is thinking in terms of a cabinet of apolitical technocrats and he hopes for majority backing at the Legislative Council meeting on Monday, March 10. However, on the way to the Council meeting, our Palestinian source reports a decision rammed through by Arafat’s backers leaving him in full command of all Palestinian security and police organizations. Any authority conferred on Abu Mazen to negotiate with Israel or achieve a ceasefire is valueless as long as the power to halt Palestinian terror is out of his hands.

Abu Mazen strongly disputes Arafat’s basic precepts, the mainsprings of the Intifada, especially his conviction that Palestinian violence, especially his campaign of suicidal terror, will destroy Israel once and for all. He is equally sure that his ally, Saddam Hussein, will beat the Americans and the anti-war coalition will then form up behind the Palestinians. Abu Mazen regards Arafat as deluded. He fears the Palestinian people is cracking under the burden of violence and Arafat’s all-out support for Saddam Hussein will lead the Palestinian people to disaster as it did in 1991.

The Palestinian leader was finally cornered into agreeing to create a prime minister’s post by his last remaining supporters, the Europeans. The European Union emissary, Miguel Moratinos, and UN Middle East Envoy Terje-Larsen, bearded Arafat in his Ramallah office and warned him: “If you don’t appoint a prime minister with real authority, by next week you’ll find yourself in Cyprus!”

But, in private, he never for a moment abandoned his conviction that his fate vis a vis Israel and Saddam’s fate opposite the Americans were inextricably linked. To his close aides, he confided his belief that “they” – meaning the Israelis and the Americans – were pushing the Abu Mazen appointment forward as a vehicle for getting rid of him and effecting a regime change in Ramallah analogous to their goal in Baghdad. But he promised to fight with all his might so as not to let “them” get away with it.

11 March: Pivotal developments in the last few hours have led Washington to a crossroads:

1. British prime minister Tony Blair has been threatened with a revolt in his cabinet and party if he orders the British army into battle alongside the United States without Security Council backing. America’s primary war ally is in dire straits, which was apparent in the statement by foreign secretary Jack Straw in Manchester Monday that his government would be willing to consider a minor adjustment in the date of the Security Council ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.

The happenings in 10 Downing Street also have military fallout. If Blair is constrained by his political misfortunes from sending British troops in with the first US-led invasion wave – even if they arrive a few days later, the American war command will have to start the offensive short of the promised 40,000 British troops, pilots, commandos and sailors.

As revealed in the last issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly No, 100, the British 1st Armored Division is assigned to capturing all southeast Iraq, including the region’s most important oil fields and the province of Khozistan abutting on Iran. British commandos are already playing a key role on the western front. They were intended to go on to be part of the main American-British thrust from the west against Tikrit and Baghdad.

The non-participation of British troops in the first stages of the campaign will also affect allied aerial and naval deployments. The US war command will have five aircraft carriers at its disposal instead of six and 450-480 warplanes instead of 600.

This is a worst-case scenario and may not come about. Blair may decide to put his reputation and standing on the line and order the British army to go into action together with the Americans. Until this happens, however, the Bush team will be having sleepless nights.

2. These setbacks, real and potential, are having an adverse effect on other fronts, military and diplomatic. In Ankara, for instance. Washington had been assured that Recept Tayyup Erdogan once he took over as Turkish prime minister would quickly clear the way for the landing of 62,000 US troops in Turkish bases to open a second front in northern Iraq. But on Monday, March 10, Erdogan, clearly influenced by the diplomatic reverses suffered by Washington, sounded as though he was developing an incipient case of cold feet.

C. In the diplomatic arena, the US and Britain have suffered a stinging defeat in their campaign to drive a second Iraq resolution through the UN Security Council. What they needed was 9 votes out of 15 and no veto. What they had in the bag by Monday night, March 10, was only the four votes of the US, Britain Spain and Bulgaria in favor, five opposed, including France and Russia who promised to veto the motion if it gained a majority, five waverers and one abstention, Pakistan. Instead of isolating France, as the leader of the anti-war camp, President Chirac succeeded in isolating the US and Britain.

D. debkafile‘s Gulf sources reveal that Chirac spent most of Monday trying to persuade Saddam Hussein to make a grand gesture and, in an address over Iraqi television, announce the dismantling of an important weapon system of mass destruction and a major concession to the UN inspectors. The presidential palaces in Paris and Baghdad were still making the telephone wires hum as we wrote this.

In the light of all these setbacks, Bush and his team must take one of their hardest decisions since attaining the White House. Their options are shrinking as fast as the time at their disposal. Launching the war within days would mean fighting short-handed – at least in the early stages.

When the war is over, thorny questions will be asked about how American diplomacy came to fail so abjectly and how a war effort, planned in every political, military and logistical detail for more than a year, came to be launched before the armed forces were fully prepared.

Finally, while justly proud of capturing al Qaeda’s No. 3 commander, the United States will find that adverse fortunes on the Iraq front will have an effect on its other front, the global war on international terror.

Israel is also bound to be affected by whatever is decided. Official spokesman have repeated ad nauseum that the US war on Iraq is not Israel’s war, that the dangers to this country are minimal and that they will be dealt with by the Americans. Not surprisingly, these statements have never carried much weight with most Israelis. They are even less trusting in such outside guarantees now that grave uncertainties hover over United Nations, British and Turkish capabilities for action. It stands to reason that no nation facing a military threat from a neighbor, including missiles, warplanes, drones and suicides bearing chemical, biological and maybe radioactive weapons, can afford to play down these dangers or entrust its security to any hands other than its own.

This dictum Israel brushed off in the first Gulf war in 1991 and paid for it dearly in the 1993 Oslo Accords and its consequence: the Palestinian confrontation declared in 2000 and still raging. Israeli leaders look like making the same mistake again in 2003.

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